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OCTOBER 26, 1998: 

Who The Hell Is Juliette?

There's no holding back a music-video director who gets to make his first real movie. In this inventive gem from Mexico, director Carlos Marcovich lays on the trickery, but he's not merely showing off. Jumbling fiction and documentary, he captures the fiery spirit of two young beauties whose old souls connect. Yuliet, a defiant Cuban teenager, meets Fabiola, a soulful Mexican model and actress, on a video shoot in Havana. Both have big dreams. Each is haunted by an absent father. But where the actress has the world before her, Yuliet is bound to her grand, beautiful, melancholy homeland. Or is she? Flirting with the camera, giving bad advice to her little brother, sharing her checkered sexual history, or -- again and again -- contradicting her director, Yuliet is incandescent, a walking wound with star quality. Who The Hell Is Juliette? meets her head on. Playful yet poignant, the film proves that sometimes more is more.

-- Scott Heller


Slam

Caught between two warring gangs about to go at it in the prison yard, Ray Joshua (Saul Williams) does what he does best: opens his mouth and lets the rap muse speak. His incantatory, jagged poem stills the savage breasts, and Marc Levin's idealistic Slam, for the moment at least, stills the cynicism of the most hardened critics. Preposterous though it may be, Ray's Orpheus-like outpouring does seem to vindicate the redemptive power of art -- even though Levin renders the inner-city reality from which it springs with a shaky, cinéma-vérité hysteria. As subtle as its title, sometimes fatuous in its earnestness and a little too rose-colored for its own good, Slam nonetheless offers a genuine tribute to the power of the imagination.

To get to that point, though, you have to accept the drug-dealing Ray as a neighborhood shaman who buys ice cream for the kids on the street when he's not selling weed or writing a love poem so local kingpin Big Mike (Lawrence Wilson) can charm his new squeeze. When Big Mike gets whacked, Ray is picked up and booked for possession, and his stay in the joint with feuding gangstas is further confused by creative-writing teacher Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), who urges him to participate in a poetry slam. Their relationship is tortured and superficial, but the generous amount of time Levin allows real-life slam poets Williams and Sohn to strut their stuff more than redeems the picture's generic lapses.

-- Peter Keough


Practical Magic

The Owens women live under an ancient curse: any man they love is doomed to an untimely death. Orphaned as young girls, Sally and Gillian are raised by their eccentric aunts Frances (a bawdy Stockard Channing) and Jet (the wickedly funny Dianne Wiest), benevolent white witches who thumb their noses at the town's attempts to ostracize them. As teenagers, Sally (a tepid Sandra Bullock) immerses herself in herb lore while sultry Gillian (a bewitching Nicole Kidman) relishes her power over men. Later, trying to subdue Gillian's abusive lover Jimmy with belladonna, the sisters accidentally poison him (don't try this at home, ladies). The law shows up at Sally's door: Sheriff Gary Hallett (Aidan Quinn) is smitten and so is she -- all the more because she conjured him up as a young girl, dreaming of Mr. Right. But a more urgent problem arises: Gillian is possessed by Jimmy's ghost. A coven is convened, and amid a swirl of broomsticks, boiling cauldrons, and ILM-style fairy dust, the bogeyman is banished and the love spell clicks into place.

Griffin Dunne's cunningly crafted romp bears only slight resemblance to Alice Hoffman's romantic novel, but its wry humor and lush imagery make for a fun, feel-good movie just in time for Halloween. Although there are noble attempts to woo modern witches (like myself) with politically correct neo-pagan platitudes, this film is at its best when brazenly embracing every evil stereotype in the book.

-- Peg Aloi


Pleasantville

Don Knotts is God. At least he is to David (Tobey Maguire), a nerdy youth who seeks solace from the dysfunctional '90s in reruns of Pleasantville, a Father Knows Best-like sit-com from the '50s. Knotts's omnipotent TV repairman rewards David for his devotion to the show by zapping him and his cooler sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) into the black-and-white, Edenic world of the series. But the teens find Pleasantville stifling, and when they introduce the residents to the forbidden fruits of sex (as in other '50s sit-coms, married couples sleep in separate beds) and knowledge (books are blank-paged props), they inadvertently change the town for better and worse. Splashes of color appear first in the landscape and later on people's faces whenever they reach a moment of self-actualization, and soon the town is divided between preservers of the status quo and the "colored."

Fabulist screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Dave), making his directing debut, has created a film that's visually brilliant and gorgeous but whose premise is more inspired than its execution. Its most tantalizing suggestions (that ideas and art can be as life-changing as sex) are left frustratingly undeveloped, and its most subtle point (Ross is satirizing not the '50s but the nostalgic evocation of the '50s that conservatives use to decry the changes in the decades that followed) is buried under gimmickry. Like the town, Pleasantville the movie is a lovely place to visit but one whose surface charms don't bear much scrutiny.

-- Gary Susman


Orgazmo

If the sight of Trey Parker in a superhero costume under a 300-pound naked woman tickles your funnybone, if the repetition of the term "stuntcock" or someone suggesting going out for sushi during the filming of a five-way sex scene is the apex of hilarity, get help -- Orgazmo is for you. Written and directed by Trey Parker of South Park fame, this film proves that kaka humor taken to its logical extreme is just kaka.

Parker plays a Mormon named Joe Young who takes on a porn-film role in order to finance his Temple wedding with toothy, shrieking fiancée Lisa (Robyn Lynne Raab). Captain Orgazmo is a superhero who disables bad guys by making them come with a blast from his "Orgazmorator." Making people laugh is another challenge altogether. With his South Park sidekick Matt Stone playing a smitten crew member ("Not that I'm a queer or anything," he begins every inanity) in a pitiful poke at Boogie Nights, this tedious trash was rated NC-17 for no apparent reason other than that it's unwatchable for viewers of all ages.

-- Peter Keough


Bride of Chucky

If nothing else, Bride of Chucky teaches us that Good Guy dolls get boners too. This revelation is followed by a hilarious scene where the killer Chucky doll actually knocks boots with his bride. When she asks whether he has a rubber, he yells, "I'm made of rubber!", and the self-parodying moment sums up the spirit (and class) of this fourth installment in the Child's Play series. As with most horror franchises, the original was a funny, scary movie with a neat premise, and the ensuing sequels quickly descended into silliness. Cashing in on the slasher-film resurgence, Chucky returns for the silliest installment yet.

Chucky's ex-girlfriend Tiffany (a boobular Jennifer Tilly) reincarnates the killer doll, who slaughters her and sends her spirit into another doll. Seeking the magical amulet that will put them back into human bodies, Chucky and Tiffany hijack a pretty teenage couple who get blamed for Chucky's murders. Bride of Chucky is one Party of Five cast member short of being another Scream knockoff, though it certainly pays tribute with a sarcastic commentary on the horror genre. But there aren't enough jokes to sustain this as a comedy, even if the lowbrow, self-referential humor occasionally hits the mark. As a horror flick, it fails grandly, offering zero scary moments and operating on the mistaken notion that gore is an adequate substitute for suspense. The only truly terrifying scene is the one where Chucky gets laid.

-- Dan Tobin



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